President Trump praised Gina Haspel as she was sworn in as the new head of the CIA. She’s the first woman to head the agency, but her nomination was overshadowed by allegations she was involved in torture programs.
Gina Haspel called for more agents to be deployed overseas as she was sworn in as director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on Monday.
US President Donald Trump, who nominated Haspel after tapping former CIA head Mike Pompeo for secretary of state, said that there was “no one in this country better qualified” for the job.
Haspel is the first woman to head the US intelligence agency, a distinction she said she was proud of.
“I would not be standing before you today if not for the remarkable courage and dedication displayed by generations of CIA women who challenged stereotypes, broke down barriers and opened doors for the rest of us,” Haspel told agency employees at the swearing-in.
Haspel’s long career as a CIA agent and a supervisor of the agency’s clandestine operations was praised by her supporters, who argued she was highly qualified to head the agency.
She faced a great deal of pushback, however, over her role in the agency’s use of brutal interrogation methods after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Haspel was CIA station chief in Thailand in 2002 when the agency conducted harsh interrogations including waterboarding of suspected terrorists at secret “black site” facilities abroad. She’s also been criticized for her role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes.
In a letter sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Haspel appeared to reject the interrogation methods, writing: “With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken.”
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Gina Haspel told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that she “will not restart” a controversial CIA interrogation program if confirmed to lead the agency and that she would obey her moral compass, not President Trump, if she was ever instructed to carry out other questionable activities.
“We’re not getting back into that business,” Haspel said. “I would not restart, under any circumstances, an interrogation program at CIA.”
“My moral compass is strong,” Haspel said as the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), pressed her to define her “moral code.”
“I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that is immoral, even if it is technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it,” Haspel continued. “I believe CIA must undertake activities that are consistent with American values.”
Haspel resisted efforts by senators to get her to say whether she believed it was morally wrong for her agency to use “enhanced” interrogation techniques on terrorist suspects, including waterboarding, which many have said is a form of torture. She said that the techniques had been authorized at the time by the highest legal authorities in the U.S. government and by President George W. Bush.
Senators were visibly frustrated at Haspel’s unwillingness to say definitively whether she believed it was wrong at the time to waterboard terrorist suspects. Haspel defended the interrogation sessions.
“We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaeda detainees,” she told Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). “I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”
Senators have asked several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees to commit to standing up to the president and informing Congress if he were to pressure them to do anything legally or morally questionable. But the pledge takes on extra significance with Haspel, whose hearing centered around the role she played in the CIA’s interrogation program — something Trump said on the campaign trail he wouldn’t mind bringing back into practice.
Haspel told senators that she doubted the president would ever ask her to waterboard a suspect, stressing that experience had shown that the CIA “is not the right place to conduct interrogations,” as it does not have the proper expertise.
Haspel said she had a “great reputation” with Trump and his inner circle, adding that “the president does turn to me for my view on certain countries and certain experiences.”
Opening statement by Gina Haspel, nominee for CIA director
Gina Haspel told Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that she “will not restart” the CIA’s brutal interrogation program if confirmed to lead the agency.(Reuters)
“I give him by best advice,” Haspel said, noting that she separates her views from that of CIA analysts.
Haspel took charge in 2002 of a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand where an al-Qaeda suspect was waterboarded, and in 2005 she drafted a cable, ultimately issued by her boss, ordering the destruction of dozens of videotapes of the interrogation sessions. She told senators Wednesday that she had “absolutely” supported the destruction of 92 tapes, all depicting one detainee being interrogated, over concerns “about the security risk that was posed to our officers.” She noted that CIA lawyers at the time had determined there was no legal obligation to retain them, despite lawmakers and government officials having raised questions about the interrogations only days before their destruction was ordered.
But when asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) whether she would support the same order today, she said she “would not” — noting that she had learned from experience that more stakeholders should have been involved in the decision.
She also told senators that she “fully” supports the current “standards for detainee treatment required by law” and that, in retrospect, the CIA “was not prepared to conduct a detention and interrogation program.” She also said that the CIA learned “tough lessons” during “that tumultuous time” and that experience reinforced her “personal commitment, clearly and without reservation,” not to restart the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
But senators warned her that a pledge to simply follow the laws against torture were “not enough.”
“No one should get credit for simply agreeing to follow the law. That’s the least we should expect from any nominee and certainly the director of the CIA,” Warner told Haspel, setting the stage for what was expected to be a contentious hearing.
Panel Democrats and some Republicans were primed to grill the career CIA operative about her clandestine background, particularly the role she played in the agency’s controversial interrogation program.They want Haspel to provide a public reckoning not only of her personal views on the interrogation techniques that were employed but also of the rest of her 33-year record at the agency. The CIA has refused to declassify materials about her tenure.
Haspel pushed back against the characterization that she held a decision-making role in the interrogation program. John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel, has written in his memoir that the chief of staff to the head of clandestine operations in 2005 — the position Haspel held — “had previously run the interrogation program.”
That person running the program was not her, Haspel said. Rizzo “was wrong and he issued a correction.”
Haspel’s hearing comes just days after the nominee offered to bow out, to avoid discussing in a public setting her role in the agency’s interrogation program. White House officials — who tweeted support for Haspel during her Wednesday hearing — persuaded her not to step aside. Haspel’s answers and overall performance Wednesday could make or break her bid for the Cabinet post.
Haspel spoke deliberately and carefully in her opening statement, calling the hearing “a new experience for me, as I spent over 30 years undercover and in the shadows,” and noting that the hearing was the first time she had directly engaged with the American public in her career.
“I think you will find me to be a typical middle-class American,” Haspel told senators.
But Haspel’s CIA career has been anything but ordinary — and she acknowledged that practically nothing is known about her publicly. Still, she offered few details about her career, save for narrating how she volunteered to work in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Haspel dropped only hints about her biography of acquiring information “in brush passes, dead drops, or in meetings in dusty allies of Third World capitals,” weaving a narrative akin to a spy novel. “I recall very well my first meeting with a foreign agent. It was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I’d never met before,” Haspel said. “When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led.”
The CIA has made documents about Haspel’s career available to lawmakers to read, but it has not declassified them so that they can be discussed with the public — save for an internal review that found Haspel was not at fault in the destruction of the interrogation tapes. Warner called that decision “unacceptable” in a letter sent to Haspel earlier this week
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pushed Haspel to acknowledge that she was the person at the CIA — where she is serving as acting director — blocking the declassification of materials related to her career that some lawmakers say raise additional questions about her fitness for the job.
“You are making the classification decision,” King said to Haspel.
She retorted, “I am electing not to make an exception for myself, but I am adhering to existing RDI guidelines,” using the acronym for the CIA’s former rendition, detention and interrogation program.
Harris challenged Haspel to recuse herself from the decisions about declassification of her record. Haspel demurred, questioning whether she would even have the authority to recuse herself, as she is “not a lawyer.”
“I am following the guidelines that exist at CIA,” Haspel told Harris, offering no promises to try to leave the declassification decision to someone else.
Haspel cited her support from the rank and file in the agency, noting that “they know that I don’t need time to learn the business of what CIA does.”
“I know CIA like the back of my hand,” she said. “I know them, I know the threats we face, and I know what we need to be successful in our mission.”
Haspel’s career success is not in question — Warner and the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), praised her for her tenure and work in the CIA. But committee members are divided over whether Haspel’s career is enough to recommend her for the public, Cabinet-level position of leading the agency.
Several Republicans noted that Haspel would, if confirmed, become the first woman to run the agency. Haspel also referred to this at various points in her written remarks, speaking about how she and others “leaned forward” to put her in her current position.
Several Democrats were frustrated by what they saw as Haspel’s efforts to parse “legalese” when answering questions about her role drafting the cable ordering the destruction of the interrogation tapes.
“That was 17 years ago,” Haspel told Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), arguing that “when you’re out in the trenches and Washington says, ‘This is what we need you to do. This is legal. The attorney general has deemed it so,’ ” someone in her position would have no real say in the matter.
“In all of my assignments I have conducted myself honorably and in accordance with U.S. law,” she said. “My parents raised me right. I know the difference between right and wrong.”
Haspel pledged to cooperate with congressional oversight and tell lawmakers that “if we can’t share aspects of our secret work with the public, we should do so with their elected representatives.” She will have the opportunity to provide more details about her tenure during a closed-door hearing after her public testimony.
Burr told reporters Tuesday that the committee could vote as soon as next week on Haspel’s nomination and that he expected Haspel to receive a positive endorsement. But her chances of being confirmed on the Senate floor — where not all Republicans have pledged to support her — is not certain.
Karoun Demirjian is a congressional reporter covering national security, including defense, foreign policy, intelligence and matters concerning the judiciary. She was previously a correspondent based in The Post’s bureau in Moscow.
Some challenges remain or have returned, like military threats in the region and tension with American Jews.
In November 1947, one day prior to the expected United Nations vote on partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the CIA urged President Harry Truman not to throw his weight behind the idea. America would have to defend the new Jewish state when it faltered, the CIA’s secret memorandum warned, adding that “the Jews will be able to hold out no longer than two years.”
Several months later, David Ben-Gurion was about to declare the establishment of the State of Israel. Seated among the dozen or so men who would determine the fate of the state-to-be, he famously turned to one of his top military commanders, Yigael Yadin, and asked him if he thought a new Jewish state would survive the military onslaught that the Arabs would inevitably launch. Yadin, who would later serve as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, replied that he thought the Jewish state would have a 50-50 chance.
Today, those bleak assessments feel like ancient history. As the modern Israeli state celebrates 70 years, the prevailing sentiment is one of extraordinary accomplishment. American Jewish leaders were incensed in 1948 when Ben-Gurion came to the U.S. and spoke about the fledgling state as the new center of the Jewish world; today, that status is nowhere in doubt.
In 1948, there were some 650,000 Jews in Israel, who represented about 5 percent of the world’s Jews. Today, Israel’s Jewish population has grown ten-fold and stands at about 6.8 million people. Some 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel; this population overtook American Jews several years ago and is now the world’s largest Jewish community. Israel’s birthrate, even among secular Jews, is higher than that of any other OECD country, and significantly higher than that of American Jews (who now account for some 34 percent of Jews worldwide).
Beyond mere survival, the other challenge that the young Jewish state faced was feeding and housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were flocking to its borders. At times, financial collapse seemed imminent. Food was rationed and black markets developed. Israel had virtually no heavy machinery for building the infrastructure that it desperately needed. Until Germany paid Holocaust reparations, the young state’s financial condition was perilous.
Today, that worry also feels like a relic from another time. Israel is not only a significant military power (and in the region, a superpower) but also a formidable economic machine. A worldwide center for technology that has more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any country other than the U.S., Israel’s economy barely hiccupped in 2008. The shekel, its currency, is strong. Like other countries, Israel has a worrisome income gap between rich and poor, but fears of an economic collapse have vanished.
Israel has become an important cultural center, vastly disproportionately for a country whose population approximates that of New York City. When the five finalists for the Man Booker literary prize were announced last year, two were Israelis who write in Hebrew: David Grossman and Amos Oz. Grossman won. Ever since S.Y. Agnon received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966, the Israeli literary scene has been punching far above its weight.
When the state was founded, Ben-Gurion sought to block television altogether; he thought it would have a deleterious impact on Israeli education and culture. He failed in that attempt, but for decades, Israel had but one television channel. Today, Americans and Europeans alike wait hungrily for new episodes of Israeli shows like “Fauda,” while others (like “Homeland” and “The A Word”) have been remade into American and British series.
On the occasion of Independence Day, Israelis are fully conscious — and deeply proud — of the fact that their country has exceeded the ambitions of the men and women who founded it seven decades ago.
Yet some of the initial worries and troubles of those early years persist. Militarily, the looming enemy is not the Palestinians (with whom peace remains utterly elusive), but Iran. The Israeli military is bracing for a possible Iranian missile or drone attack. International support for Israel remains a concern: In 1948, many American Jews were deeply conflicted about the creation of a Jewish state. Solidarity eventually grew — but today the relationship has become increasingly fraught.
And Israelis got a stark reminder this week that some of the social ills that have long plagued the country persist. Several days ago, Haaretz, Israel’s “paper of record,” askedits writers which Israeli song they most despise. When one replied that he hates the national anthem, a furious Twitter discussion ensued. At one point, a woman annoyed at having her focus on security dismissed by the Haaretz editors, tweeted, “It’s thanks to my ideology that you live like a king in this country and can write and distribute your absurd newspaper with no impediments.” Amos Schocken, Haaretz’s editor and the son of its previous editor, retorted (in a tweet he subsequently deleted): “You insolent woman. My family was leading Zionism when you were still climbing on trees. Haaretz has been in the Schocken family for 83 years; we did fine without your ideology and will continue to.”
Seventy years after its founding, Israel’s once-ruling Labor party has virtually no political influence. There are many reasons for that, but its reputation as an elitist, out-of-touch clan of European intellectuals is prime among them. Neither the Haaretz crowd nor the Israeli non-European majority is likely to alter its views of the other. Despite the many questions surrounding the Jewish state as it enters its eighth decade, what seems almost certain is that it will be not Ben-Gurion’s founding Labor party but the once marginal and now powerful political right that will rule this still young and fascinating nation for the foreseeable future.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To critics, this was yet another example of increasingly hostile and partisan behavior toward Trump from the former leader of an agency that considers itself above partisanship.
“For John Brennan, the most recent former CIA director, to come forward and insinuate — on national TV — that a sitting president is the subject of blackmail by a foreign adversary is outrageous,” Buck Sexton, a former CIA officer, said in an interview.
“There used to be a day when intelligence officials, whether they were in office or out of office, would not spew innuendo like that, especially such grave charges,” Wall Street Journal writer Kim Strassel said on Fox News’ “Ingraham Angle.”
Brennan, who is now an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, has not shied away from expressing his extreme distaste for Trump. But critics argue he is going farther than others who have led the spy agency.
Our former intelligence chiefs have a responsibility to maintain the nonpartisan, mission first reputation of the intelligence community.
– Buck Sexton, former CIA official
“When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history,” Brennan recently tweeted.
When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/974859881827258369 …
A year ago, media narrative was that intel chiefs were a bunch of apolitical boyscouts who were right to take pee-pee kompromat claims seriously. As Brennan’s increasingly unhinged tweets show, a year later, that narrative (and push by compliant media) looks patently absurd. https://twitter.com/JohnBrennan/status/974978856997224448 …
Sexton, host of a syndicated radio program “Buck Sexton with America Now,” suggested Brennan’s comments are hurting the reputation of the agency.
“Our former intelligence chiefs have a responsibility to maintain the nonpartisan, mission-first reputation of the intelligence community,” he said.
Other experts say Brennan’s intense partisanship is unusual for someone in his position, even if other former top administration officials have been outspoken about their beliefs after leaving office.
I think he is afraid of the Russian president. They may have something on him personally… the fact that he has had this fawning attitude toward Mr. Putin… I think continues to say to me that he does have something to fear.
– Ex-CIA Director John Brennan in an MSNBC interview
“Partisan criticism is not uncommon, but it is usually diplomatic,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “Think of James Baker or Leon Panetta, people who speak softly because they are used to being listened to.”
Jillson said that current and former intelligence officials who have been privy to secret information should adhere to a higher code of conduct because their remarks “carry more weight.”
“With politicians, we take what they say as raw speculation,” Jillson said. “But for someone like John Brennan, who has known the country’s deepest secrets for decades, the public takes it as an allusion made with the knowledge of the nation’s secrets, which he has a responsibility not to reveal.”
Brennan is facing criticism from the left, too.
The liberal New York Times opinion page recently cited Brennan’s tweet accusing Trump of “venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption” and argued such accusations hurt his credibility.
“Declarations like these may be important to make and gratifying to read, but they really shouldn’t be coming from those whose integrity depends on them remaining outside the political fray, even in these insane times,” the paper said.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.
Former CIA Director John Brennan slammed President Trump on Saturday for firing Andrew McCabe days before being eligible for a lifetime pension, suggesting the president is a “demagogue” headed for the “dustbin of history.”
McCabe, a former acting FBI director, was fired Friday night after multiple federal probes and reports showed that he lied to investigators reviewing the bureau’s probe into whether Hillary Clinton sent and received classified information on private email servers while secretary of state.
He was fired days before he would have been eligible for a lifetime pension.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he officially fired McCabe after receiving a report from the Inspector General, the findings from the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and the recommendation of the Justice Department’s senior career official. He said the firing was based on Justice Department procedure.
Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!
The attorney general said the reports concluded that McCabe made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions. Sessions also said McCabe was fired after a “fair and extensive” investigation.
“Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy,” Trump tweeted Friday night. “Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!”
On Saturday afternoon he tweeted: “As the House Intelligence Committee has concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign. As many are now finding out, however, there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State. #DrainTheSwamp”
Republicans on the GOP-controlled committee ealier this month reached that conclusion, though Democrats on the panel disagree.
When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/974859881827258369 …
Trump has been feuding with FBI leadership since taking office, suggesting top bureau officials are undermining him and his administration – particularly with its investigation into whether his 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia.
“When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history,” Brennan, an Obama administration CIA director, tweeted in response to Trump’s tweet. “You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you.”
McCabe, who served as the FBI’s acting director after Trump fired James Comey in May 2017, said his dismissal is “part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement and intelligence professionals more generally.”
“It is part of this Administration’s ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel (Russia collusion) investigation,” he said in a statement. “For the last year and a half, my family and I have been the targets of an unrelenting assault on our reputation and my service to this country.
As the House Intelligence Committee has concluded, there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign. As many are now finding out, however, there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice & State. #DrainTheSwamp
He continued: “The President’s tweets have amplified and exacerbated it all. He called for my firing. He called for me to be stripped of my pension after more than 20 years of service.”
McCabe led the bureau, independently, until Aug. 2, 2017 — during the early months of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and potential collusion with Trump campaign associates.
Republicans have long criticized McCabe for his ties to the Democratic Party — his wife received donations during a failed 2015 Virginia Senate run from a group tied to a Clinton ally, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe — all while the Clinton email probe was underway.
McCabe returned to the spotlight when Republicans on the House Intelligence committee released its memo on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuses in connection with the Russia probe, saying that McCabe signed a FISA warrant targeting former Trump campaign volunteer adviser Carter Page.
Fox News’ Brooke Singman contributed to this report.
President Trump tells reporters why he fired Rex Tillerson.
After 14 months of private tensions and public disputes, President Trump on Tuesday ousted his beleagured secretary of State, replacing Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in a major shake-up of his national security and foreign policy team.
Trump announced the change in a Twitter message hours after Tillerson abruptly cut short a weeklong trip to Africa and returned to Washington at 4 a.m. Tuesday. State Department officials said Tillerson did not speak to the president and only learned of his firing from Trump’s Twitter post.
In an unusual pushback that only highlighted the clash, the State Department made clear that Tillerson had not quit. It issued a statement that said he “had every intention of remaining,” and was “unaware of the reason” for his dismissal.
The nation’s top diplomat was blindsided last week when Trump abruptly decided to accept an invitation for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the most ambitious diplomatic initiative of the Trump administration and one that normally would involve immense State Department input.
Speaking to reporters before he boarded Air Force One for his first visit to California as president, Trump said he and Tillerson “disagreed on things.”
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Trump said, citing the Iran nuclear deal as a point of disagreement. Tillerson had urged Trump to stay in the landmark nuclear disarmament deal, but the president has vowed to withdraw by mid-May if it is not renegotiated.
“So we were not thinking the same,” Trump said. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process.”
The president said he wished Tillerson well. “I’ll be speaking to Rex over a long period of time,” he added. “I actually got on well with Rex, but it was a different mindset.”
Trump repeatedly praised Pompeo, saying “we’ve had a very good chemistry right from the beginning.”
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
Gina Haspel, the CIA’s deputy director, is slated to replace Pompeo as head of the nation’s chief spy service. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to lead the agency as it faces new threats from Russia, China and other rivals and adversaries.
The Foreign Relations Committee expects to hold confirmation hearings on Pompeo’s nomination next month and he is likely to win strong bipartisan support. In January 2017, the full Senate confirmed him as CIA director by a vote of 66 to 32.
Tillerson, a voice of moderation in a chaotic administration, clashed repeatedly with Trump during his 14 months at State and reportedly referred to Trump as a “moron” during a private meeting last year. Tillerson never confirmed or denied having made the remark, but it clearly reached Trump’s ears and incensed him.
In addition to resisting Trump’s effort to scrap the 2015 deal with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, he opposed Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to the divided holy city of Jerusalem. The plan has seemingly destroyed chances of a negotiated resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict for the short term.
And despite a record of high-stakes energy deals with Russian authorities in his former job as chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., Tillerson has voiced more public mistrust of Moscow than Trump has.
On Monday, Tillerson again departed from the White House position — denouncing Russia for a poison attack in Britain that targeted a former Russian spy, who has criticized President Vladimir Putin, and his daughter. More than 20 people, including first responders, were injured by the chemical agent.
The attack “clearly came from Russia” and will “trigger a response,” Tillerson told reporters aboard his plane as he returned from Africa. Earlier in the day, the White House had conspicuously declined to join British officials in blaming Russia for the attack.
But even as he differed with Trump, Tillerson had few allies on Capitol Hill or among the diplomats and civil servants in the sprawling department he headed. Many in the foreign service saw him as aloof and distant as he pursued a plan to cut budgets, trim staff and reorganize the department’s bureaucracy.
Although Tillerson was repeatedly said to be considering stepping down last year, the State Department made clear Tuesday that Tillerson didn’t resign. It also suggested that Trump had fired him without cause.
“The Secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues,” it said. “He established and enjoyed relationships with his counterparts. He will miss his colleagues at the Department of State and enjoyed working together with the Department of Defense in an uncommonly robust relationship.”
It added, “The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling and not to be regretted. We wish Secretary-Designate Pompeo well.”
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee, said Tillerson leaves behind a “hobbled” State Department.
“The timing of this move also couldn’t be worse,” Engel said. “Less than a week after announcing a summit with Kim Jong Un — the sort of engagement that will require a diplomatic full-court press — the president has let the world know that he’s throwing an already hollowed-out State Department into further disarray with a transition at the top. However much I may have disagreed with Secretary Tillerson, to push him out at this moment sends a terrible message to friends and adversaries all over the world.”
Pompeo, a retired Army officer and former congressman, has political skills that Tillerson lacks, said Michael Allen, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and advised the Trump transition.
“He can do media, he does the Hill, he does everything Tillerson didn’t do,” Allen said. “Most of all, he has Trump’s confidence.”
Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill generally applauded the move, suggesting that Pompeo brought a useful skill set to the nation’s diplomatic challenges.
“As director of the CIA, Mike has made contacts throughout the world and has come up with aggressive policies to defend our homeland,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “No one understands the threat posed by North Korea and Iran better than he does.”
Pompeo often briefs Trump in person in the Oval Office on critical intelligence issues, and over the last several weeks has played a pivotal role in brokering messages from South Korean officials about a possible meeting with the North Korean leader.
Tillerson was cut out of the loop in Africa when the White House announced that Trump had agreed to meet with Kim. Indeed, hours earlier, Tillerson had cautioned reporters that the U.S. and North Korea were still a long way from any negotiations.
His prediction may prove true since North Korea has not publicly responded to Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s invitation to meet, and officials have yet to set a date, location or agenda for a summit.
For much of his tenure, Tillerson traveled the world in a permanent mode of damage control, trying to placate allies in Europe and elsewhere who felt alienated or confused by Trump’s erratic policy pronouncements and threats. His trip to Africa was partly to mollify governments offended by Trump’s reported dismissal of immigrants from “shithole countries.”
Time after time, Tillerson had to explain to foreign allies what Trump has meant when he seemed to be insulting their countries. “The president’s tweets don’t define the policy,” Tillerson said last month during a trip to Latin America, where Trump’s policies have roiled relations.
The Texas oilman was a man of few words and low-key demeanor, a sharp contrast to Trump’s bombastic and flamboyant manner.
“The president and I are pretty different individuals in terms of our management style, in terms of our communication style,” Tillerson told reporters traveling with him in Latin America.
“It doesn’t mean one is right, one is wrong; one is better, one is worse,” he added. “But we’re very different, and the way I process information and come to decisions is different from the way he does.”
CIA Director John Brennan was angry. On August 4, 2016, he was on the phone with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB, the security service that succeeded the KGB. It was one of the regularly scheduled calls between the two men, with the main subject once more the horrific civil war in Syria. By this point, Brennan had had it with the Russian spy chief. For the past few years, Brennan’s pleas for help in defusing the Syrian crisis had gone nowhere. And after they finished discussing Syria—again with no progress—Brennan addressed two other issues, not on the official agenda.
First, Brennan raised Russia’s harassment of US diplomats—an especially sensitive matter at Langley after an undercover CIA officer had been beaten outside the US embassy in Moscow two months earlier. The continuing mistreatment of US diplomats, Brennan told Bortnikov, was “irresponsible, reckless, intolerable and needed to stop.” And, he pointedly noted, it was Bortnikov’s own FSB “that has been most responsible for this outrageous behavior.”
Then Brennan turned to an even more sensitive issue: Russia’s interference in the American election. Brennan now was aware that at least a year earlier Russian hackers had begun their cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee. We know you’re doing this, Brennan said to the Russian. He pointed out that Americans would be enraged to find out Moscow was seeking to subvert the election and that such an operation could backfire. Brennan warned Bortnikov that if Russia continued this information warfare, there would be a price to pay. He did not specify the consequences.
Bortnikov, as Brennan expected, denied Russia was doing anything to influence the election. This was, he groused, Washington yet again scapegoating Moscow. Brennan repeated his warning. Once more Bortnikov claimed there was no Russian meddling. But, he added, he would inform Russian President Vladimir Putin of Brennan’s comments.
This was the first of several warnings that the Obama administration would send to Moscow. But the question of how forcefully to respond would soon divide the White House staff, pitting the National Security Council’s top analysts for Russia and cyber issues against senior policymakers within the administration. It was a debate that would culminate that summer with a dramatic directive from President Barack Obama’s national security adviser to the NSC staffers developing aggressive proposals to strike back against the Russians: “Stand down.”
At the end of July—not long after WikiLeaks had dumped more than 20,000 stolen DNC emails before the Democrats’ convention—it had become obvious to Brennan that the Russians were mounting an aggressive and wide-ranging effort to interfere in the election. He was also seeing intelligence about contacts and interactions between Russian officials and Americans involved in the Trump campaign. By now, several European intelligence services had reported to the CIA that Russian operatives were reaching out to people within Trump’s circle. And the Australian government had reported to US officials that its top diplomat in the United Kingdom had months earlier been privately told by Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. By July 31, the FBI had formally opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump’s campaigns ties to Russians, with subinquiries targeting four individuals: Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, Michael Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency chief who had led the crowd at the Republican convention in chants of “Lock her up!”, Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser who had just given a speech in Moscow, and Papadopoulos.
Brennan spoke with FBI Director James Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the NSA, and asked them to dispatch to the CIA their experts to form a working group at Langley that would review the intelligence and figure out the full scope and nature of the Russian operation. Brennan was thinking about the lessons of the 9/11 attack. Al Qaeda had been able to pull off that operation partly because US intelligence agencies—several of which had collected bits of intelligence regarding the plotters before the attack—had not shared the material within the intelligence community. Brennan wanted a process in which NSA, FBI, and CIA experts could freely share with each other the information each agency had on the Russian operation—even the most sensitive information that tended not to be disseminated throughout the full intelligence community.
Brennan realized this was what he would later call “an exceptionally, exceptionally sensitive issue.” Here was an active counterintelligence case—already begun by the FBI—aiming at uncovering and stopping Russian covert activity in the middle of a US presidential campaign. And it included digging into whether it involved Americans in contact with Russia.
While Brennan wrangled the intelligence agencies into a turfcrossing operation that could feed the White House information on the Russian operation, Obama convened a series of meetings to devise a plan for responding to and countering whatever the Russians were up to. The meetings followed the procedure known in the federal government as the interagency process. The general routine was for the deputy chiefs of the relevant government agencies to meet and hammer out options for the principals—that is, the heads of the agencies—and then for the principals to hold a separate (and sometimes parallel) chain of meetings to discuss and perhaps debate before presenting choices to the president.
But for this topic, the protocols were not routine. Usually, when the White House invited the deputies and principals to such meetings, they informed them of the subject at hand and provided “read ahead” memos outlining what was on the agenda. This time, the agency officials just received instructions to show up at the White House at a certain time. No reason given. No memos supplied. “We were only told that a meeting was scheduled and our principal or deputy was expected to attend,” recalled a senior administration official who participated in the sessions. (At the State Department, only a small number of officials were cleared to receive the most sensitive information on the Russian hack; the group included Secretary of State John Kerry; Tony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state; Dan Smith, head of the department’s intelligence bureau; and Jon Finer, Kerry’s chief of staff.)
For the usual interagency sessions, principals and deputies could bring staffers. Not this time. “There were no plus-ones,” an attendee recalled. When the subject of a principals or deputies meeting was a national security matter, the gathering was often held in the Situation Room of the White House. The in-house video feed of the Sit Room—without audio—would be available to national security officials at the White House and elsewhere, and these officials could at least see that a meeting was in progress and who was attending. For the meetings related to the Russian hack, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, ordered the video feed turned off. She did not want others in the national security establishment to know what was underway, fearing leaks from within the bureaucracy.
Rice would chair the principals’ meetings—which brought together Brennan, Comey, Kerry, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—with only a few other White House officials present, including White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco, and Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser. (Kahl had to insist to Rice that he be allowed to attend so Biden could be kept up to speed.)
Rice’s No. 2, deputy national security adviser Avril Haines, oversaw the deputies’ sessions. White House officials not in the meetings were not told what was being discussed. This even included other NSC staffers—some of whom bristled at being cut out. Often the intelligence material covered in these meetings was not placed in the President’s Daily Brief, the top-secret document presented to the president every morning. Too many people had access to the PDB. “The opsec on this”—the operational security—“was as tight as it could be,” one White House official later said.
As the interagency process began, there was no question on the big picture being drawn up by the analysts and experts assembled by Brennan: Russian state-sponsored hackers were behind the cyberattacks and the release of swiped Democratic material by WikiLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 (an internet persona suspected of being a Russian front), and a website called DCLeaks.com. “They knew who the cutouts were,” one participant later said. “There was not a lot of doubt.” It was not immediately clear, however, how far and wide within the Russian government the effort ran. Was it coming from one or two Russian outfits operating on their own? Or was it being directed from the top and part of a larger project?
The intelligence, at this stage, was also unclear on a central point: Moscow’s primary aim. Was it to sow discord and chaos to delegitimize the US election? Prompting a political crisis in the United States was certainly in keeping with Putin’s overall goal of weakening Western governments. There was another obvious reason for the Russian assault: Putin despised Hillary Clinton, blaming her for the domestic protests that followed the 2011 Russian legislative elections marred by fraud. (At the time, as secretary of state, Clinton had questioned the legitimacy of the elections.) US officials saw the Russian operation as designed at least to weaken Clinton during the election—not necessarily to prevent her from winning. After all, the Russians were as susceptible as any political observers to the conventional wisdom that she was likely to beat Trump. If Clinton, after a chaotic election, staggered across the finish line, bruised and battered, she might well be a damaged president and less able to challenge Putin.
And there was a third possible reason: to help Trump. Did the Russians believe they could influence a national election in the United States and affect the results? At this stage, the intelligence community analysts and officials working on this issue considered this point not yet fully substantiated by the intelligence they possessed. Given Trump’s business dealings with Russians over the years and his long line of puzzling positive remarks about Putin, there seemed ample cause for Putin to desire Trump in the White House. The intelligence experts did believe this could be part of the mix for Moscow: Why not shoot for the moon and see if we can get Trump elected?
“All these potential motives were not mutually exclusive,” a top Obama aide later said.
Obama would be vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard until August 21, and the deputies took his return as an informal deadline for preparing a list of options—sanctions, diplomatic responses, and cyber counterattacks—that could be put in front of the principals and the president.
As these deliberations were underway, more troubling intelligence got reported to the White House: Russian-linked hackers were probing the computers of state election systems, particularly voter registration databases. The first reports to the FBI came from Illinois. In late June, its voter database was targeted in a persistent cyberattack that lasted for weeks. The attackers were using foreign IP addresses, many of which were traced to a Dutch company owned by a heavily tattooed 26-year-old Russian who lived in Siberia. The hackers were relentlessly pinging the Illinois database five times per second, 24 hours a day, and they succeeded in accessing data on up to 200,000 voters. Then there was a similar report from Arizona, where the username and password of a county election official was stolen. The state was forced to shut down its voter registration system for a week. Then in Florida, another attack.
One NSC staffer regularly walked into the office of Michael Daniel, the White House director of cybersecurity, with disturbing updates. “Michael,” he would say, “five more states got popped.” Or four. Or three. At one point, Daniel took a deep breath and told him, “It’s starting to look like every single state has been targeted.”
“I don’t think anybody knew what to make of it,” Jeh Johnson later said. The states selected seemed to be random; his Department of Homeland Security could see no logic to it. If the goal was simply to instigate confusion on Election Day, Johnson figured, whoever was doing this could simply call in a bomb threat. Other administration officials had a darker view and believed that the Russians were deliberately plotting digital manipulations, perhaps with the goal of altering results.
Michael Daniel was worried. He believed the Russians’ ability to fiddle with the national vote count—and swing a national US election to a desired candidate—seemed limited, if not impossible. “We have 3,000 jurisdictions,” Daniel subsequently explained. “You have to pick the county where the race was going to be tight and manipulate the results. That seemed beyond their reach. The Russians were not trying to flip votes. To have that level of precision was not feasible.”
But Daniel was focused on another parade of horribles: If hackers could penetrate a state election voter database, they might be able to delete every 10th name. Or flip two digits in a voter’s ID number—so when a voter showed up at the polls, his or her name would not match. The changes could be subtle, not easily discerned. But the potential for disorder on Election Day was immense. The Russians would only have to cause problems in a small number of locations—problems with registration files, vote counting, or other mechanisms—and faith in the overall tally could be questioned. Who knew what would happen then?
Daniel even fretted that the Russians might post online a video of a hacked voting machine. The video would not have to be real to stoke the paranoids of the world and cause a segment of the electorate to suspect—or conclude—that the results could not be trusted. He envisioned Moscow planning to create multiple disruptions on Election Day to call the final counts into question.
The Russian scans, probes, and penetrations of state voting systems changed the top-secret conversations underway. Administration officials now feared the Russians were scheming to infiltrate voting systems to disrupt the election or affect tallies on Election Day. And the consensus among Obama’s top advisers was that potential Russian election tampering was far more dangerous. The Russian hack-and-dump campaign, they generally believed, was unlikely to make the difference in the outcome of the presidential election. (After all, could Trump really beat Clinton?) Yet messing with voting systems could raise questions about the integrity of the election and the results. That was, they thought, the more serious threat.
Weeks earlier, Trump had started claiming that the only way he could lose the election would be if it were “rigged.” With one candidate and his supporters spreading this notion, it would not take many irregularities to spark a full-scale crisis on Election Day.
Obama instructed Johnson to move immediately to shore up the defenses of state election systems. On August 15, Johnson, while in the basement of his parents’ home in upstate New York, held a conference call with secretaries of state and other chief election officials of every state. Without mentioning the Russian cyber intrusions into state systems, he told them there was a need to boost the security of the election infrastructure and offered DHS’s assistance. He raised the possibility of designating election systems as “critical infrastructure”—just like dams and the electrical grid—meaning that a cyberattack could trigger a federal response.
Much to Johnson’s surprise, this move ran into resistance. Many of the state officials—especially from the red states—wanted little, if anything, to do with the DHS. Leading the charge was Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, an ambitious, staunchly conservative Republican who feared the hidden hand of the Obama White House. “We don’t need the federal government to take over our voting,” he told Johnson.
Johnson tried to explain that DHS’s cybersecurity experts could help state systems search for vulnerabilities and protect against penetrations. He encouraged them to take basic cybersecurity steps, such as ensuring voting machines were not connected to the internet when voting was underway. And he kept explaining that any federal help would be voluntary for the states. “He must have used the word voluntary 15 times,” recalled a Homeland Security official who was on the call. “But there was a lot of skepticism that revolved around saying, ‘We don’t want Big Brother coming in and running our election process.’ ”
After the call, Johnson and his aides realized encouraging local officials to accept their help was going to be tough. They gave up on the idea of declaring these systems critical infrastructure and instead concluded they would have to keep urging state and local officials to accept their cybersecurity assistance.
Johnson’s interaction with local and state officials was a warning for the White House. If administration officials were going to enlist these election officials to thwart Russian interference in the voting, they would need GOP leaders in Congress to be part of the endeavor and, in a way, vouch for the federal government. Yet they had no idea how difficult that would be.
At the first principals meeting, Brennan had serious news for his colleagues: The most recent intelligence indicated that Putin had ordered or was overseeing the Russian cyber operations targeting the US election. And the intelligence community—sometimes called the IC by denizens of that world—was certain that the Russian operation entailed more than spy services gathering information. It now viewed the Russian action as a full-scale active measure.
This intelligence was so sensitive it had not been put in the President’s Daily Brief. Brennan had informed Obama personally about this, but he did not want this information circulating throughout the national security system.
The other principals were surprised to hear that Putin had a direct hand in the operation and that he would be so bold. It was one thing for Russian intelligence to see what it could get away with; it was quite another for these attacks to be part of a concerted effort from the top of the Kremlin hierarchy.
But a secret source in the Kremlin, who two years earlier had regularly provided information to an American official in the US embassy, had warned then that a massive operation targeting Western democracies was being planned by the Russian government. The development of the Gerasimov doctrine—a strategy for nonmilitary combat named after a top Russian general who had described it in an obscure military journal in 2013—was another indication that full-scale information warfare against the United States was a possibility. And there had been an intelligence report in May noting that a Russian military intelligence officer had bragged of a payback operation that would be Putin’s revenge on Clinton. But these few clues had not led to a consensus at senior government levels that a major Putin-led attack was on the way.
At this point, Obama’s top national security officials were uncertain how to respond. As they would later explain it, any steps they might take-calling out the Russians, imposing sanctions, raising alarms about the penetrations of state systems—could draw greater attention to the issue and maybe even help cause the disorder the Kremlin sought. A high‑profile U.S. government reaction, they worried, could amplify the psychological effects of the Russian attack and help Moscow achieve its end. “There was a concern if we did too much to spin this up into an Obama-Putin face-off, it would help the Russians achieve their objectives,” a participant in the principals meeting later noted. “It would create chaos, help Trump, and hurt Clinton. We had to figure out how to do this in a way so we wouldn’t create an own-goal. We had a strong sense of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.”
A parallel concern for them was how the Obama administration could respond to the Russian attack without appearing too partisan. Obama was actively campaigning for Clinton. Would a tough and vocal reaction be seen as a White House attempt to assist Clinton and stick it to Trump? They worried that if a White House effort to counter Russian meddling came across as a political maneuver, that could compromise the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to work with state and local election officials to make sure the voting system was sound. (Was Obama too worried about being perceived as prejudicial or conniving? “Perhaps there was some overcompensation,” a top Obama aide said later.)
As Obama and his top policymakers saw it, they were stuck with several dilemmas. Inform the public about the Russian attack without triggering widespread unease about the election system. Be pro-active without coming across as partisan and bolstering Trump’s claim the election was a sham. Prevent Putin from further cyber aggression without prompting him to do more. “This was one of the most complex and challenging issues I dealt with in government,” Avril Haines, the NSC’s number two official, who oversaw the deputies meetings, later remarked.
The principals asked the Treasury Department to craft a list of far-reaching economic sanctions. Officials at the State Department began working up diplomatic penalties. And the White House pushed the IC to develop more intelligence on the Russian operation so Obama and his aides could consider whether to publicly call out Moscow.
At this point, a group of NSC officials, committed to a forceful response to Moscow’s intervention, started concocting creative options for cyberattacks that would expand the information war Putin had begun.
Michael Daniel and Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s top Russia analyst, were convinced the United States needed to strike back hard against the Russians and make it clear that Moscow had crossed a red line. Words alone wouldn’t do the trick; there had to be consequences. “I wanted to send a signal that we would not tolerate disruptions to our electoral process,” Daniel recalled. His basic argument: “The Russians are going to push as hard as they can until we start pushing back.”
Daniel and Wallander began drafting options for more aggressive responses beyond anything the Obama administration or the US government had ever before contemplated in response to a cyberattack. One proposal was to unleash the NSA to mount a series of far-reaching cyberattacks: to dismantle the Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks websites that had been leaking the emails and memos stolen from Democratic targets, to bombard Russian news sites with a wave of automated traffic in a denial-of-service attack that would shut the news sites down, and to launch an attack on the Russian intelligence agencies themselves, seeking to disrupt their command and control modes.
Knowing that Putin was notoriously protective of any information about his family, Wallander suggested targeting Putin himself. She proposed leaking snippets of classified intelligence to reveal the secret bank accounts in Latvia held for Putin’s daughters—a direct poke at the Russian president that would be sure to infuriate him. Wallander also brainstormed ideas with Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs and a fellow hard-liner. They drafted other proposals: to dump dirt on Russian websites about Putin’s money, about the girlfriends of top Russian officials, about corruption in Putin’s United Russia party—essentially to give Putin a taste of his own medicine. “We wanted to raise the cost in a manner Putin recognized,” Nuland recalled.
One idea Daniel proposed was unusual: The United States and NATO should publicly announce a giant “cyber exercise” against a mythical Eurasian country, demonstrating that Western nations had it within their power to shut down Russia’s entire civil infrastructure and cripple its economy.
But Wallander and Daniel’s bosses at the White House were not on board. One day in late August, national security adviser Susan Rice called Daniel into her office and demanded he cease and desist from working on the cyber options he was developing. “Don’t get ahead of us,” she warned him. The White House was not prepared to endorse any of these ideas. Daniel and his team in the White House cyber response group were given strict orders: “Stand down.” She told Daniel to “knock it off,” he recalled.
Daniel walked back to his office. “That was one pissed-off national security adviser,” he told one of his aides.
At his morning staff meeting, Daniel matter-of-factly said to his team that it had to stop work on options to counter the Russian attack: “We’ve been told to stand down.” Daniel Prieto, one of Daniel’s top deputies, recalled, “I was incredulous and in disbelief. It took me a moment to process. In my head I was like, ‘Did I hear that correctly?’” Then Prieto spoke up, asking, “Why the hell are we standing down? Michael, can you help us understand?” Daniel informed them that the orders came from both Rice and Monaco. They were concerned that if the options were to leak, it would force Obama to act. “They didn’t want to box the president in,” Prieto subsequently said.
It was a critical moment that, as Prieto saw it, scuttled the chance for a forceful immediate response to the Russian hack—and keenly disappointed the NSC aides who had been developing the options. They were convinced that the president and his top aides didn’t get the stakes. “There was a disconnect between the urgency felt at the staff level” and the views of the president and his senior aides, Prieto later said. When senior officials argued that the issue could be revisited after Election Day, Daniel and his staff intensely disagreed. “No—the longer you wait, it diminishes your effectiveness. If you’re in a street fight, you have to hit back,” Prieto remarked.
Obama and his top aides did view the challenge at hand differently than the NSC staffers. “The first-order objective directed by President Obama,” McDonough recalled, “was to protect the integrity of election.” Confronting Putin was necessary, Obama believed, but not if it risked blowing up the election. He wanted to make sure whatever action was taken would not lead to a political crisis at home—and with Trump the possibility for that was great. The nation had had more than 200 years of elections and peaceful transitions of power. Obama didn’t want that to end on his watch.
By now, the principals were into the nitty-gritty, discussing in the Sit Room the specifics of how to respond. They were not overly concerned about Moscow’s influence campaign to shape voter attitudes. The key question was precisely how to thwart further Russian meddling that could undermine the mechanics of the election. Strong sanctions? Other punishments?
The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington’s demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.
“If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage,” a participant later remarked. “They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact.” In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyberattacks against America’s critical infrastructure—and possibly shut down the electrical grid.
The State Department had worked up its own traditional punishments: booting Russian diplomats—and spies—out of the United States and shutting down Russian facilities on American soil. And Treasury had drafted a series of economic sanctions that included massive assaults on Putin’s economy, such as targeting Russia’s military industries and cutting off Russia from the global financial system. One proposal called for imposing the same sorts of sanctions as had been placed on Iran: any entity that did business with Russian banks would not be allowed to do business with US financial institutions. But the intelligence community warned that if the United States responded with a massive response of any kind, Putin would see it as an attempt at regime change. “This could lead to a nuclear escalation,” a top Obama aide later said, speaking metaphorically.
After two weeks or so of deliberations, the White House put these options on hold. Instead, Obama and his aides came up with a different plan. First, DHS would keep trying to work with the state voting systems. For that to succeed, the administration needed buy-in from congressional Republicans. So Obama would reach out to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to try to deliver a bipartisan and public message that the Russian threat to the election was serious and that local officials should collaborate with the feds to protect the electoral infrastructure.
Obama and the principals also decided that the US government would have to issue a public statement calling out Russia for having already secretly messed with the 2016 campaign. But even this seemed a difficult task fraught with potential problems. Obama and his top aides believed that if the president himself issued such a message, Trump and the Republicans would accuse him of exploiting intelligence—or making up intelligence—to help Clinton. The declaration would have to come from the intelligence community. The intelligence community was instructed to start crafting a statement. In the meantime, Obama would continue to say nothing publicly about the most serious information warfare attack ever launched against the United States.
Most of all, Obama and his aides had to figure out how to ensure the Russians ceased their meddling immediately. They came up with an answer that would frustrate the NSC hawks, who believed Obama and his senior advisers were tying themselves in knots and looking for reasons not to act. The president would privately warn Putin and vow overwhelming retaliation for any further intervention in the election. This, they thought, could more likely dissuade Putin than hitting back at this moment. That is, they believed the threat of action would be more effective than actually taking action.
A meeting of the G-20 was scheduled for the first week in September in China. Obama and Putin would both be attending. Obama, according to this plan, would confront Putin and issue a powerful threat that supposedly would convince Russia to back off. Obama would do so without spelling out for Putin the precise damage he would inflict on Russia. “An unspecified threat would be far more potent than Putin knowing what we would do,” one of the principals later said. “Let his imagination run wild. That would be far more effective, we thought, than freezing this or that person’s assets.” But the essence of the message would be that if Putin did not stop, the United States would impose sanctions to crater Russia’s economy.
Obama and his aides were confident the intelligence community could track any new Russian efforts to penetrate the election infrastructure. If the IC detected new attempts, Obama then could quickly slam Russia with sanctions or other retribution. But, the principals agreed, for this plan—no action now, but possible consequences later—to work, the president had to be ready to pull the trigger.
Obama threatened—but never did pull the trigger. In early September, during the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, the president privately confronted Putin in what a senior White House official described as a “candid” and “blunt” talk. The president informed his aides he had delivered the message he and his advisers had crafted: We know what you’re doing, if you don’t cut it out. We will impose onerous and unprecedented penalties. One senior US government official briefed on the meeting was told that the president said to Putin in effect, “You fuck with us over the election and we’ll crash your economy.”
But Putin simply denied everything to Obama—and, as he had done before, blamed the United States for interfering in Russian politics. And if Obama was tough in private, publicly he played the statesman. Asked at a post-summit news conference about Russia’s hacking of the election, the president spoke in generalities—and insisted the United States did not want a blowup over the issue. “We’ve had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia in the past, from other counties in the past,” he said. “Our goal is not to suddenly in the cyber arena duplicate a cycle escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past, but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody’s acting responsibly.”
White House officials believed for a while that Obama’s warning had some impact: They saw no further evidence of Russia cyber intrusions into state election systems. But as they would later acknowledge, they largely missed Russia’s information warfare campaign aimed at influencing the election—the inflammatory Facebook ads and Twitter bots created by an army of Russian trolls working for the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.
On October 7, the Obama administration finally went public, releasing a statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security that called out the Russians for their efforts to “interfere with the U.S. election process,” saying that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” But for some in the Clinton campaign and within the White House itself, it was too little, too late. Wallander, the NSC Russia specialist who had pushed for a more aggressive response, thought the October 7 statement was largely irrelevant. “The Russians don’t care what we say,” she later noted. “They care what we do.” (The same day the statement came out, WikiLeaks began its monthlong posting of tens of thousands of emails Russian hackers had stolen from John Podesta, the CEO of the Clinton campaign.)
In the end, some Obama officials thought they had played a bad hand the best they could and had succeeded in preventing a Russian disruption of Election Day. Others would ruefully conclude that they may have blown it and not done enough. Nearly two months after the election, Obama did impose sanctions on Moscow for its meddling in the election—shutting down two Russian facilities in the United States suspected of being used for intelligence operations and booting out 35 Russian diplomats and spies. The impact of these moves was questionable. Rice would come to believe it was reasonable to think that the administration should have gone further. As one senior official lamented, “Maybe we should have whacked them more.”
Image credits: Klimentyev Mikhail/TASS/ZUMA; Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP; John Locher/AP